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Recipes from the Night Counter
By Alia Yunis

In The Night Counter, Fatima mocks the Arab American FBI agent when she tells Fatima that she knows how to make grapeleaves. Fatima laments that the only thing any American with Middle Eastern or eastern Mediterranean blood knows how to make is grapeleaves—including her own daughters. But the fact they at least do know how to roll grapeleaves, which is a learned art, is a testament to how we pass on our heritage through food, if nothing else. This is true of immigrants and non-immigrants alike, from the Native Americans to the latest arrivals from Central America.

Many of the dishes Fatima makes in The Night Counter would take too much time for her children to do, especially her kibbeh, in which she takes so much pride. So while I’ve enclosed a recipe for kibbeh here, I’ve tried to include some simpler dishes that are common in Lebanon and the surrounding countries, particularly for mezza.

Meals in the Middle East can last for hours because people keep talking around the food, but the best part of a meal is the beginning, the mezza. Mezza is the collection of appetizer dishes served with warm pita bread and fresh juices. In families that drink alcohol, araq is also served. It is an anise-flavor hard liquor served over ice similar to ouzo and available at some liquor stores in the US. There are endless variations of for mezza. For example, in my life, I’ve had a least 50 versions of eggplant salad and probably will encounter 50 more still.

And yes, I have also included not just one but two recipes for grape leaves. Sahtein—that’s bon appetit in Arabic.

 


LAUNDRY DAY FOOD: MAJADERA
In The Night Counter, Amir promises his grandmother Fatima that for dinner he is not eating quiche, or gay pie, as he explains it to her, but rather majadera, a food with a whole lot less glamour to it than quiche and a whole lot more gas. But dress it down or dress it up, majadera is a perennial favorite. Not because it’s cheap, easy, and fast. Not even because it’s rich in vitamins and fiber and made from ingredients that are always in the pantry. Those were the reasons it was prized in the past. Today majadera is just simply good food.

Majadera is so easy to make that you shouldn’t serve it to company, or at least that’s what my mother used to say. She got that from her mother, who called it “laundry day food,” because it was the only thing she had time to make on the days she had to take care of the laundry of a family of nine without the awareness that somewhere in this world laundry machines existed.

Majadera has come up in the world, as vegetarian food is no longer for the poor man’s table. It seems to be more standard in mezza today in all its variations. But the basic recipe hasn’t changed, still pretty much the same, if you can call it a recipe at all. You can use bulgur wheat (my favorite) or the more common rice. You can serve it with the lentils and rice still holding their shape or you can cook it into a mush. But the one thing you can’t leave out is the caramelized onions that must cover the top.

Cheap, easy, and fast doesn’t usually mean great when we talk about most things in life but there are always exceptions and majadera is one.

BASIC MAJEDERA

Two cups lentils
One cup rice (or course grain bulgur wheat soaked for 10 minutes)
Three large onions, thinly sliced
Olive oil
Salt, pepper to taste
Cumin, optional

Boil the lentils with more than enough water to cover. When the lentils are very soft, about 45 minutes to an hour, add the rice, and cook for another half hour, until rice is tender. Remember to make sure there is enough water in the pan, as the rice absorbs so much. Also, don’t let it dry out—the rice will absorb even more when it is done. Add salt and pepper to taste (it will need a lot of salt). If you like, add a little cumin, which isn’t traditional, but I know a few people who use it.

Meanwhile, fry the onions until caramelized. Spread the majadera on a platter and cover with the fried onions. Serve with yogurt, pickles, peppers, and chopped tomato and cucumber salad* on the side. Good hot, cold, or at room temperature.

*To Mexican-Americanize it a bit, salsa is an easy substitute for the tomato and cumber salad salad.

 


BUSTED ON POSSESSION OF ZAATAR
I recently watched a news story from Australia in which a Lebanese Australian called the confiscation of his mother-in-law’s zaatar by Sydney airport customs officials “a tragedy” and “a disaster” and when he still couldn’t convince the officials to release the vacuum packed zaatar, he told them he wanted to speak to a member of parliament. There, but for the grace of more merciful US customs officials, go I—and almost every other Arab American I know. Who amongst us hasn’t had a mother or aunt get out a bag of the stuff for our suitcases every time we journey off to foreign lands?

Zaatar is a mixture of wild thyme and sesame seeds that, mixed with olive oil, is an essential part of breakfast and even supper in Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and Jordan, and beyond. It is tied with chocolate in my refrigerator as the number one comfort food, and something most of the characters in The Night Counter would have grown up eating for breakfast.

It might not sound like much of concoction, but it has hundreds of variations, with different thymes and different levels of roasting or not roasting changing the flavors, not to mention the unique mix of herbs added to zaatar that vary from village to village. And there’s nothing that brings back the Levant as unlocking that aroma in the bag your relative tucked into your suitcase.

Zaatar is the most democratic of Middle Eastern foods, loved by all classes and ages, as I always witness in Jordan at Ismihan, a shop that offers over 15 varieties of zaatar, which change with the seasons, all displayed in big wooden bins from which customers diligently sample before picking the varieties they’ll take home to make their own mixture at home.

Fusion cuisine has hit the Middle East hard, like everywhere, and now you’ll find zaatar being a seasoning for almonds (kind of like Arabic Chex Mix), roasted chicken, croissants, and countless other ideas, some more unfortunate than others, although you can never go all that wrong with zaatar. But perhaps the best way to eat zaatar is at the local bakery, where it is mixed with olive oil and baked on flat bread in a wood burning oven and called manaeesh.

There are a million zaatar stories, but I will end with this one—there was a war-injured boy from the Middle East in Los Angeles for treatment that was staying with me for a few days. This was such a great kid and had just gotten out the hospital, and so we laid before him—not just me, but everyone else that took part in his care– all the wonders and decadence of food in Los Angeles for him everyday, but one day at breakfast he looked at it all, trying with all his politeness to muster enthusiasm, and then gave up and turned to me and said, “Don’t you have any zaatar? Please.” And of course, I did.I’ve included a great dough recipe for manaeesh, but you can easily make these with Pillsbury pop ‘n fresh biscuits patted out into mini pizzas. The important part isn’t the dough—it’s the zaatar. When you go to a Middle Eastern grocery make sure that it is a relatively fresh mix and that it’s not too high in salt. In fact, you don’t need to even make manaaesh. You can just cube some bread and have your guests dip the bread in a mix of olive oil and zataar.

Manaaesh

Makes three 8" breads
For the dough:
1/2 tsp. active dry yeast
3 cups flour
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup vegetable oil, plus more for greasing sheet pan
For the topping:
1/4 cup green zaatar
6 tbsp. olive oil

1. For the dough: Dissolve yeast in 1/2 cup warm water in a small bowl and set aside until foamy, about 10 minutes. Combine flour and salt in a large bowl. Add milk, 1/2 cup of the oil, 2 tbsp. warm water, and yeast mixture and stir until a dough forms. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth, 10-15 minutes. Shape dough into a ball, dust with flour, then transfer to a large clean bowl. Cover bowl with a clean damp kitchen towel and set aside in a warm spot to rest until dough has doubled in bulk, 1-2 hours.

2. For the topping: Mix zaatar and oil together in a medium bowl and set aside.

3. Preheat oven to 400°. Lightly grease a sheet pan with some vegetable oil and set aside. Turn dough out onto a clean surface, divide into thirds, and shape each piece of dough into a ball. Roll 1 dough ball out on a lightly floured surface into an 8" round and transfer to prepared sheet pan. Using your fingertips, make indentations all over surface of dough, then brush with a generous amount of the topping. Bake flat bread until lightly browned and crisp around the edges, about 10 minutes. Repeat rolling out, indenting, topping, and baking process with remaining dough balls and topping mixture, greasing baking sheet with more oil as needed. Serve warm or at room temperature.

 


Mathematics and Olive Oil
In The Night Counter, Fatima is fixated on numbers and it is something that runs through the family for five generations. She thinks about math when’s she’s cooking, too, as any woman who raised 10 kids probably would—how much to make for each one, how much it was costing, and so forth. And how many bottles of olive oil to order at the Middle Eastern market is certainly something necessary to be calculated, much as her ancestors would have wondered each year how much olive oil their crops would yield.

You cannot run a Middle Eastern home without olive oil. It goes on everything and is said to be the key to long life—in fact, some senior citizens drink a little shot of it every morning to keep themselves going physically and mentally.

Many people ask me anything in the book is autobiographical, and I can honestly say no ,but there is a tendency for OTHER people I’m related to have a thing for math. Me, I was flustered yesterday trying to help my 10-year old nephew with algebra I vaguely recall doing in 8th grade, which was a long time ago for my brain cells. But I had a good time with these math word problems with my seven-year old nephew, perhaps because they involve olive oil.

#1 OLIVE OIL MATH PROBLEM
Fatima has a problem. For the last 50 years her neighbor Millie has been a very good friend and has entertained her for many hours with her silly jokes. Millie’s about to celebrate her 70th birthday and Fatima wants to give Millie something that will give her a taste of Lebanon. She has 40 bottles of her village’s olive oil of which she has promised her cousin Dalal half of her final inventory. She would like to give Millie 10 bottles for her birthday. If she wants to keep as many as possible for herself should she first give Dalal half and then give Millie 10 or should she reverse the order in which she gives away the bottles?

#2 MANAEESH PARTY
A shop in the Middle East offers the following toppings for manaeesh: cheese, zaatar, sesame seeds, olives, and labaneh. In addition to ordering a plain flatbread, you can order any number of toppings, even all five (which I don’t think anyone in the Middle East ever has).

How many different kinds of manaeesh do you have to choose from?

ANSWER TO #1: Fatima is a pretty frugal woman. She realizes that if she first gives Millie a gift of 10 she will be left with 30 bottles of which she promised half (30/2 = 15) to cousin Dalal.

40 – (10 + 15) = 15 bottles left for Fatima

If she would give the bottles away in the reverse order she would be giving Princess cousin Dalal half of 40 (40/2 = 20) and then giving Millie 10 as a gift.

40 – (20 + 10) = 10 bottles left for Fatima.

By giving Millie the gift of 10 first she is left with 5 extra bottles of her fantastic olive oil for herself

ANSWER TO #2: You can choose from 32 different manaeesh. Here are the possible combinations: 1 plain, 5 with one topping, 10 with two toppings, 10 with three toppings, 5 with four toppings, and 1 with five toppings.

 


HOW TO TEACH AN FBI AGENT TO MAKE HUMMOS
In The Night Counter, Fatima is baffled by the FBI agent that visits her at home and claims to have a Middle Eastern background but doesn’t know how to make hummos. A couple of years ago I wrote an article for Saveur about hummos and my own mother’s bafflement at its Americanization of hummos, i.e. the need of U.S. manufacturers to give everything a “flavor,” as if it didn’t have enough flavor on its own. There’s really no need for wasabi, pesto, olive tapenade, and pimento hummos. It’s at its finest when its just the four ingredients man originally intended it to be: chickpeas, tahini, lemon juice, salt and MAYBE garlic.

Back when I wrote the article, I researched and learned a lot about hummos, but today I’m an expert on how to survive on it. For my first year in Abu Dhabi, was my main meal for probably 5 out of the 7 days of the week. With everything being new to me, it became my comfort food and a staple that didn’t make me simultaneously overwhelmed and underwhelmed, like a lot of the multi-ethnic dishes that mirror the multi-ethnic world of Abu Dhabi. I’m a food adventurer, but sometimes you don’t want adventure. Hummos is just simple and uncomplicated, unlike everything else during the day. And its even comforting to know that the same guy will be at the cashier at the Lebanese Mill and you’ll chat Middle East politics while you wait for your order. And it’s the cashier at the Lebanese Mill that told me one day, “You’ve been looking too pale lately—go get a blood test.” Turned out, he was right, I was very anemic. Hummos is pretty nutritious, but you can’t –or probably shouldn’t–live on hummos alone.

Here’s how Fatima expected the FBI agent to make hummos:

3 C. boiled chickpeas (or four cups, if planning on removing skins or using food mill).
1/2 cup tahini
3 to 4 T. freshly squeezed lemon juice (to taste)
1 small clove of garlic, crushed in mortar and pestle with salt
Salt to taste
Paprika
Chopped parsley
Olive oil

Remove skins from chickpeas (optional). Place chickpeas in food processor and puree until the beans form a smooth paste (or process in food mill). Puree beans for at least two minutes, pausing to scrap down bowl. In a large bowl, mix chickpea puree with tahini and lemon juice. If mixture is too thick, add a tablespoon of warm water. Place the mixture in a soup bowl and swish the hummos up the sides, creating a wide well in the center. Drizzle generously with extra virgin olive oil, leaving a little extra in the well. Garnish with paprika. Place a teaspoon or so of parsley in the well. Serve with pita bread, pickles, and olives on the side.

 


An Ingrained Tradition: Kibbeh
For all special occasions, Fatima prides herself on the kibbeh she makes. That makes her like many women in the Middle East who have mastered the art of this rather complex food.

In my family, no party is ever complete without a platter of my Aunt Suad’s kibbeh, a Middle Eastern mixture of finely ground bulgar, onion, and lamb or beef that is, most commonly, formed into a patty or ball, stuffed with cinnamon and sumac-spiked meat, then fried, baked, or grilled. When I ask Aunt Suad for the secret to her recipe she shows me her hands: It is widely believed that the thinner the shell, the better the kibbeh, and legend goes that a bride with long fingers is particularly prized, for she has the necessary assets to carefully form a thin enough outer layer to envelop but not overshadow the flavorful, moist center. In fact, the word kibbeh actually derives from the Arabic verb kebkeb “to shape.”

Often called the national dish of Lebanon and Syria, kibbeh is one of the most versatile concepts in Middle Eastern cookery, and recipes for it have existed for centuries, when the addition of bulgar to meat may have been a way to make the precious commodity last longer. (It is also made with fish in Iraq). In villages across the Levant, the preparation of kibbeh was once a communal event, and the sound of the pounding together of meat and bulgar in huge mortars could be heard throughout small towns. Today kibbeh is, for the most part, prepared by home cooks or in restaurants and it comes in many forms. To save time some people simply spread the mixture in a tray and bake it. As a main dish, kibbeh is frequently simmered in mint-laced yogurt, and as an appetizer or, as Miriam does for Rock’s birthday, it is often served tartare-style, drizzled with olive oil, sprinkled with mint, and scooped up with raw onion wedges. But it is the crispy, warm, deep-fried kibbeh (aqras kibbeh maqliyya) that is most often served to guests, not only as part of the mezze at Arabic restaurants, but also an essential part of the buffet at weddings, family gatherings, and other festive occasions throughout the Middle East.

KIBBEH

SHELL:
1 kilo high quality, very lean beef or lamb (if lamb, lean leg of lamb is
best)
1 kilo fine ground bulgar wheat
1 medium onion.
2 T salt
1 t. allspice
1 t. cinnamon
1/2 t. black pepper
1 C. cold water

STUFFING:
2 medium-size onions chopped
1/2 kilo ground sirloin
1/2t. allspice
1/2 t. cinnamon
salt to taste
2 T. sumac
1/4 c. olive oil
1/2 c. pine nuts or chopped walnuts

Shell: Rinse the bulgar wheat with water and squeeze out water. Grind the meat in an electric mixer twice. Finely chop the onion. Mix the spices with the onion. Knead the meat, bulgar wheat, and onion together with your hands then put through the electric grinder once. Gradually add the cold water to the mixture kneading until it is smooth and pliable like bread dough (you may not need all the water). Cover the kibbeh with cloth towel so that it does not dry out. Stuffing: Sautee the onion in the oil until soft and translucent. Add the ground meat and cook through, 10 to 15 minutes. Add cinnamon, allspice, and salt to meat a couple minutes before it is done browning. Take off heat and mix in nuts and sumac. When stuffing is cool enough to work with, you may begin making the kibbeh.

Form the kibbe "dough" into balls the size of an egg. Keep them covered with a towel, so they do not dry out. Form each "egg" into an oval shell by inserting your index finger into the "egg" and turning it around until it forms a thin oval with an open end. Use your other hand to hold the kibbeh as you turn. Dip your fingers in cold water to help prevent the kibbeh from breaking. Take a teaspoonful of the stuffing and put into the shell. Seal the shell. Do this with remaining "eggs," keeping everything covered so it does not dry out. Deep fry the balls in hot oil for a few minutes, until they turn a dark, golden brown (a color halfway between dark brown sugar and light brown sugar) Put on paper towel to drain. Serve at room temperature with yogurt on the side, if desired.

This recipe should make about 20. Fatima’s Freezing Tip: It is bet to freeze the kibbeh before frying it, and fry it a few hours before serving.

 


Fatima’s Fig Tree
One of the last things I did last fall during a visit to Jordan was to go into the backyard of my family’s home to see if another fig was ready for the picking.

It was also the first thing I’d done when I arrived there, upon my mother’s insistence. We’re a family that gets pretty excited about blooming fruit.

While I certainly also embraced the apples on their tree and the grapes on their vines, there’s something magical about the fig, perhaps because it’s so hard to find in its green and pink perfection of sweetness, unless you literally have a tree in your back yard. I had never been in Jordan at this time of year, and so the last time I had had this privilege was years ago when I had lived in Athens and Beirut, where peddlers used to walk by with carts teeming with freshly picked figs. I understood better then Fatima’s obsession with the fig tree in The Night Counter than I had before. So while the fig was Fatima’s eureka moment, I had mine picking a fig off a tree in Jordan—I learned that it is possible for a writer to understand her characters even more after she’s literally closed the book on them.

When my uncle came over later that day, he went off on another book, talking about how the figs leaf outfits and numerous other references to figs shared by the “people of the book” or Old Testament, as it is better known in the US.

Not so fascinating when you consider that those Bibliocal stores were pretty much set in the neighborhood where we were sitting. If we were just talking figs, those stories could have also been set in California, the U.S.’s fig supplier. But because figs are so delicate, it’s hard to even get them to the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market in tact, let alone deliver them to the rest of the country. The difficulty of transporting them is why it was possible for me have a conversation with my Florida-born nephew once in which he said, “I know raisins come from grapes, but what do figs come from?” “Figs,” I answered. “But before they were figs, what were they?” Even if I could have torn him away from his Xbox to get a fresh-ish fig one at the finest grocery stores in town, it wouldn’t have been juicy and bright pink. It’d have been a little tired and a lot happier if it had been allowed to dry up and go into his Cliff Bar.

There are scores of recipes for fresh figs, but really that seems wasteful. Figs are perfect just as they are. But if you do insist on jazzing them up a bit, a side of white cheese is really all you need. If it’s not fig season, try a dried fig and nut confection from a Middle Eastern shop with the white cheese.

 


FOUL FOR FOOLS AND OTHERS
In The Night Counter, Laila goes to the Arabic grocery in Detroit and decides for the first time in her marriage not to buy the ingredients to make her Egyptian husband foul.

Whether you write it out from Arabic as “foul” or “fool,” I’ll grant you that it doesn’t sound very appetizing in English. But foul medamos is actually a staple of much of the Middle East, particularly Egypt, and an appreciated breakfast or late night dinner served up with hot pita. Also know as “people’s food” because of its affordability, foul can be made so many different ways. The only absolutely necessary ingredient that Laila or anyone else making foul would definitely need is the foul itself, which is dried fava beans that have been boiled until soft. (Fava beans are also a key ingredient of another “people’s food”: falafel)

Many shops in the Middle East ladle up the steaming hot beans in a bowl and let you decide how to dress them—lemon juice and olive oil are a given, as is garlic usually. But from there, you can go a lot of different ways—some like to mix it up with green chilis, others like to stir in chickpeas, still others prefer a swirl of tahini or to scoop it up with raw onions, some like it warm, some like it hot. Here’s the way I imagine Laila would make it.

Foul Medamos

1 16-oz can fava beans, drained and rinsed
1 small red bell pepper, finely diced
1 small green bell pepper, finely diced
1 bunch of green onions, sliced
1 Persian-style cucumber, seeded and diced (optional)
1⁄4 c. of chopped flat leaf parsley
Juice of two lemons
6 T. olive oil
1 clove garlic, crushed.
1t ground cumin
1⁄4 t. red pepper –or to taste
Salt to taste

Wisk together the lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, cumin, red pepper and salt into a dressing. Add the fava beans, peppers, onions, and cucumber. Mix together gently so that the beans don’t fall apart. Add in the parsley. Serve at room temperature or chilled, but allow at least half an hour for flavors to mix.

I marked the cucumber as optional, but really it’s all optional. In fact, I think I’ve been known to make the same thing but using black beans and corn instead of the fava beans and calling it a Mexican salad. Of course, that brings me to my theory of the continents being connected once via the similarity in recipes that seem to be so dominant in both Egypt and Mexico. Of course, war, occupation and conquistadors could also explain that away. But I digress.

 


Tabouli: What It’s Supposed to Be
Tabouli and hommus are probably the two most consistently present foods at a mezza—and the two that have found their way into US markets in some rather odd formations. I won’t give you a recipe for tabouli, but if you adjust the American recipe you have with the tips below, I hope you’ll be inspired. I’ll tell you what taboubli is not: It is not chunky, it is not mostly bulgar wheat or quinoa, and parsley is not the garnish (it’s the essence).

Tips for Making Great Tabouli:

  • Keep it five parts finely chopped parsley (always flat leaf) to one part finely chopped mint. You can use the food processor but be careful not to get parts of it to puree. That’s just yuck.
  • Very finely chop the onion and mix with lemon and soaked bulgar wheat (the fine grain kind)
  • Use a lot less bulgar than an U.S. recipe calls for and make sure soak it for at 20-30 minutes before you add it.
  • For that extra something something: a couple of dashes of allspice.

 


Grapeleaves: Two of a Kind
When Laila sits down to roll grapeleaves with her father in The Night Counter, she is committing the only normal ritual of the day—rolling grapeleaves is a family bonding time passed through generations. We roll, we talk, we teach, and at the end enjoy our communal effort. While there many variations of grapeleaves, in the Levant it comes down to basic versions, one meatless and served at room temperature and one with meat, served hot.

Have plenty of grapeleaves on hand, and if you end up with too many, just toss them over the top of the pan. If you end up with too much stuffing, finishing it off by stuffing a tomato, which you can put in with the grapeleaves.

Vegetarian Filling Ingredients:

Two medium tomatoes, diced
1 medium onion, diced
3/4 cup of medium grain rice
1 bunch of fresh parsley chopped
1⁄2 bunch chopped mint (optional)
Juice of one to two lemons
1 1/2 teaspoons allspice or to taste (or you may use Arabic 7-spice powder, available at Middle Eastern markets)
1 1/2 teaspoons of salt or to taste
1/2 cup of olive oil (or a bit more)

Meat Filling:

11⁄2 cup uncooked medium grain rice, rinsed
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 pounds lean ground lamb or beef
Two tablespoons chopped parsley (optional)
1 to 2 jars of grapeleaves or about 60 fresh grapeleaves
1 sliced tomato
1 sliced potato (vegetarian)
1 sliced lemon
Juice of one lemon

Take few grapeleaves and line them up in the bottom of the pan, top with a layer of sliced tomato--and a layer of potato for the vegetarian version.

If you are using fresh grape leaves, soak them in hot water and some salt for half an hour, or until completely soft. If you are using the ones that you buy in the jar, soak them in warm water for few minutes then let them drain. Cut off the stems completely.

Mix all the ingredients for the stuffing together—you will need to use your hands! Lay a leaf plate on a dinner plate, vein side up. Add the filling in thin line in the middle of the leaf, then fold the sides and roll while pressing a bit to let the juice out and also to make it a bit tight so it doesn't fall apart. Tuck the ends in as you roll, like a burrito. Keep in mind that rice expands, so you don’t want to overstuff the grapeleaves. Place each leaf over the potatoes or tomatoes and then over each other as the bottom layer fills up. Top with the sliced lemon. Get a dinner or desert plate that can fit inside the pan, flip it upside down and place it on top of the grape leaves to press them so when they start cooking they don't fall apart. Add enough hot water just to cover them, fit lid on tightly and bring to boil. For the vegetarian version, let them cook on medium low heat for about 20 minutes—more if the grapeleaves are tough—until the rice is tender. For the meat version cook on very low heat for about an hour after the water comes to a boil. When finished cooking (you may have to drain out excess water or add water during cooking), squeeze the juice of one lemon over the grapeleaves.

To serve, flip the pan over onto a serving platter. Tap the bottom of the pan, so that everything comes out like a pilaf—this is traditional but takes a little practice and isn’t necessary, aside from the nice presentation it gives.

 

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